Poor Jack

Noël Annan

  • Leaves from a Victorian Diary by Edward Leeves and John Sparrow
    Alison Press/Secker, 126 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 24370 9

In the Berlin restaurant Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, ignoring Mr Norris, suddenly asked the young Englishman: ‘And, excuse me, how are the Horse Guards?’ ‘Still sitting there.’ ‘Yes? I am glad to hear this. Ho! Ho! Ho! ... Excuse me, I can remember them very well.’ They had in fact been sitting there for longer perhaps than Christopher Isherwood knew. In June 1849 Edward Leeves, an elderly expatriate, driven out of Venice by the Austrian bombardment, made his way to London. There he met Jack Brand, a trooper in the Blues. A month later Leeves went to Scotland to stay with the Queensberrys having fixed with Jack a day to meet on his return. Jack never showed up. He had died that day of cholera. Leeves was shattered. He visited the grave to kiss the headstone and day after day recorded how long it was since Jack last mounted guard or had been buried. He longed only to lie in the grave with him, and his diary became an electuary of grief. By next summer he was back in Venice with his memories.

Some will read his diary with amused contempt; and it almost looks as if John Sparrow intended them to do so. He mocks Leeves in his epilogue with some rollicking verses to the tune of ‘Three Blind Mice’. Leeves was what Guardsmen used to call an old twank. The diary begins with him twittering in Venice. ‘Cannonade every evening and I get no rest, will it ever end?’ The cannonade not only disturbed him, it disturbed his servants, and he had ‘a regular blow-up with Farenza who has behaved abominably’. ‘My confounded Cook has gone mad, I believe with political excitement.’ His cough became so troublesome that ‘I am perfectly beaten down and worn out.’ ‘That liar Manin’ was to blame; and so was Pio Nono’s vanity. Worst of all was Palmerston, whose ‘mischievous and ignorant policy’ positively encouraged the revolutionaries everywhere. Still, there was no doubt General Haynau would win, and ‘I hope there will be no mock Humanity but that the chiefs will be made to pay for the mischief they have so wantonly and wickedly inflicted.’ His hope was fulfilled elsewhere in Italy: Haynau became notorious for his policy of hanging men and flogging women. A month after Leeves left London Haynau was visiting Barclay’s brewery, when he was beaten up by the workers, who pursued him with cries of ‘General Hyaena’: and Palmerston told the Austrian Government in the inevitable apology that the general should never have visited a country where he was so detested.

Leeves wrote in the diction of the bucks of his youth. ‘Dined with Mrs Smith which I found vastly dull.’ But there was Lady Hunter and Lady Pechell; and, after all, the dear Ponsonbys and Lady Q were so obleeging. Leeves, who was now over sixty, moved at ease in society. The trouble was he could not keep a valet. The German he engaged in Berlin cheated him, his successor ‘made his appearance at dressing time this evening dead drunk’. At times he sounds like Lord Foppington. ‘My damned Landlord has put the finishing stroke to his Insolence and so I have had to take another lodging. I really think the whole world is gone mad ... In the park I had a glimpse of a Campbell but I was loaded with Oranges and could not stop which I afterwards repented of.’ A Campbell was the codeword for one of the Blues; and the reason Leeves was thrown out of his lodgings was that his landlord objected to Guardsmen being brought back for the night.

Inconsolable he might be, but Leeves certainly spared no effort at consolation with other ‘rare boys’. Not all were a success: ‘9 March, David Young! 11 March, D.Y. no good.’ He was dogged by bad luck. He had only to get off with a trooper and either he or the trooper at once fell ill. But trooper Paxton (nephew of the Chatsworth gardener) was a ‘bold, audacious Blackguard such as I like’. Jack had nicknamed him Screw and Leeves got on with him famously. Then Screw’s father bought him out of the regiment and he was set to marry. Leeves gave up. All the way back to Venice he wrote to Screw, and for weeks after arrival looked for letters from him. When a ‘thundering letter’ came, he sent Screw £5 for a lark to celebrate his own birthday. In the end, he sent him £200, though he expected Screw had lied to him and would use it to emigrate to America.

Leeves was characteristic of many of those who haunted Albany Street barracks. Some enjoy dressing up in the cuirass and helmet and are excited by the encounter and the danger of discovery. Some enjoy the illusion of courtship, consummation and adieu within the space of an hour or two. Others like Leeves are all of a flutter and prefer to watch and let the fine fellows make the running. Leeves was timid. He failed to visit Versailles or the theatre in Paris because he was overcome with apprehensions; and when he went to pick up Guardsmen, ‘I sat in the park, but so shy I could make ... nothing.’ And yet the dashing appearance of the Blues, who ‘look stunning in their White Leathers’, and their reckless talk and behaviour, were the spur which made Leeves follow these ‘fine saucy blackguards’.

The blackguards had two preoccupations in their leisure hours, beer and money, which, as they had to live on the Queen’s shilling, they earned by sex. A two-volume work of erotica, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, published in 1881, describes how ‘when a young fellow joins, some one of us breaks him in and teaches him the trick ... Although we do it for money, we also do it because we really like it, and if gentlemen gave us no money, I think we should do it all the same. As far as I can see all the best gentlemen in London like running after soldiers.’ Numbers of the best gentlemen nursed the hope that one day they would meet a young trooper who was worth buying out of the service and could be a companion. This was what happened to Joe Ackerley’s father thirty years later when he was a trooper in the Horse Guards and was twice bought out by protectors, from whom he learnt manners: the second of these set him up in life. Like Isherwood’s Baron who put up with the horseplay and indignities heaped on him by the Berlin boys, Leeves knew why Screw attracted him. He was ‘as wild as the winds (or I should not have taken so to him)’. But he may have seen in Jack the unattainable ideal when he exclaimed after a more than usually rough night: ‘Drunken brutes. How was it that Jack was so different from the others?’

Yet perhaps John Sparrow was not altogether mocking Leeves. Some years ago he complained of the younger generation’s vapid preference for the love-in. ‘The one thing love does not mean to them is the mysterious, possessive, devastating, personal passion ... the intense preoccupation of one individual with another.’ Leeves fell under that spell which made Constant describe Adolphe’s subjection to Eléonore, and Proust conclude that love was a monstrous illusion and self-deception. Jack’s goodness melted him. ‘He used to answer me when I told him how I loved him “I believe you.” He never asked me for a farthing; he was always honourable and good and affectionate.’ Leeves was obsessed by his looks. ‘It was then for the first time, that I heard him sing. And then he laid his head with his beautiful hair on my shoulder. Gentle boy! Who and what were you?’

For Jack was a mystery: he had enlisted under an assumed name and Leeves never discovered who he really was. You may get irritated by Leeves’s endless laments and protestations that all that life now holds is the tomb, but you are listening to a man in the grip of an emotion that is shaking him to pieces. ‘My poor boy was the only Interest I had made for myself and he was taken away.’ Jack’s body is always before his eyes, and the wet and dirt of that winter made him think what had become of that beautiful body as it lay rotting in the ground: ‘the thought makes me shudder.’ There are echoes in his limp grief. ‘Strong thunder and lightning ... Poor Boy! I trust that he sleeps well.’ Housman, too, thought of a body in the earth.

The night is freezing fast,
Tomorrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold.

To those torn by grief the image of the beloved suddenly takes corporeal shape. ‘The sense of leaving Miss Brawne,’ wrote Keats, ‘is beyond everything horrible – the sense of darkness coming over me – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.’ ‘At this moment last year, I was talking to you, Jack, and you were telling me your name; just opposite the passage up to New Street and under a large tree. I see you now, Boy! Would you could see me!’

It is part of the anguish of the obsessed that, as they become like flies ever more helplessly entangled in the web of their illusion, they still remain aware of the realities of life. ‘Could I have had those Boys together,’ Leeves asked himself, ‘what would have become of me, for I should have been capable of commanding any extravagance for them.’ He told himself he should settle for Venice. At Venice there was no society, it was an existence without life in it; but ‘I am not sure that I am not better thus, for I hate the restraint of trying to be agreeable and there is so very little society that amuses or interests me: as for the crowd, it bores me to extinction.’ Reading his old journals, Leeves saw that it was in 1827 that Beastie had died and 1829 when he went with Bailey to the Nore. His days of philandering were over. ‘Here I am absolutely alone. If my spirits will bear it, so much the better.’ They bore it for another twenty years, and then he slipped into the grave. Before he died he destroyed all his papers. Beastie, Bailey and the rest vanished from human sight. He left only the pages covering this one year of his life, but even then he tore out those covering the three months immediately after Jack’s death, as if he could not endure others to know the agony of those days. The prose of modern fiction is often violent and fashioned to display ‘felt emotion’. Barley Alison is to be congratulated on publishing a book in which the very banality of the thought and language conveys overpowering grief and love.